Lord God Bird
by Pamela Main
It was spring, their fourteenth as a married couple, when Amir decided to tell Alison about birds.
Two hundred years ago, the famous bird artist and ornithologist Alexander William—or was it Wilson?—Amir wasn’t sure, and what did it matter? In any case, the bird artist, probably exhausted and sweaty from a day of hunting birds in the swamp, returned to his hotel room in Wilmington, North Carolina to find his bed linens littered with mahogany chips and one of the world’s last remaining ivory-billed woodpeckers perched on the desecrated bedpost. The bird gave the artist the luminous yellow eye, the bird’s equivalent, as it were, of flipping man the bird.
What in the world do you feed a campephilus principalis—or as the Cubans more poetically put it, a carpintero real? The answer, which the bird artist never got right (he offered it wild bird seed, termites, bits of lettuce, and even a live fly), was beetle larvae burrowed into the bark of a dying cypress. For his trouble, the bird artist got his hands pecked bloody, and the ornery ivory-bill died three days later. Despite his wounds, the ornithologist mourned its death, though it was true the bird artist’s job was made that much easier by still life.
After the incident, campephilus principalis was considered extinct, despite rumored spottings. Then in 1935 a group of Cornell scientists kayaking through the swamps of Arkansas recorded its Kent-Kent, BAM-bam, double-rap pounding bill on hardwood and then a shaky, twelve-second black and white footage of the bird’s arrow-like flight. It was like Lazarus, one or two scientists said—another noted that it was, more accurately, like the phoenix. It was a loud flyer, they agreed, and then in unison, their voices echoing off the hollowed trunks of the tupelos, they exclaimed, “Lord God, what a bird!”
Twenty-feet long, scarlet-crested, white-tail feathered, their bird had been a male. Surely, this was one of the last. The ivory-bill was lost to North America after World Was II, and as the century whittled away, 24 million acres of contiguous bayou bottomland became 4.4 sad scattered acres. Love of timber and agriculture = extinct bird. Until February 2004, when another young scientist paddled off down the coffee-colored White River. Not three feet from the bow of his canoe (he first heard flapping), the scientist saw a 20-foot long UFO, scarlet crested and white tail feathered. The ubiquitous pileated woodpecker, he assumed, since the ivory-bill was extinct. But when the bird perched on a hickory limb, it displayed the tell-tale white saddle of plumage—therefore, not the pileated. Kent-Kent, BAM-bam. He could come to only one conclusion. The scientist lay back in his canoe to retrieve his camera, glancing up for a moment at the canopy of trees, the Spanish moss hanging down from the cypresses like the very beard of—
Lord God, what a bird!
“They mate for life, these woodpeckers,” Amir said from the overstuffed armchair he’d positioned near the fire in the family room.
As she expected, no hint of accusation, neither in his voice nor on his face. Amir closed his magazine.
“They share the duties of raising young and need six square miles of flying space per pair.” An engineer, a male, Amir liked facts and measurements, but what had always been surprising to her, what perhaps kept her interested enough not to have called it quits before now, was that he also liked stories. By this time, she knew he often intertwined fact and fiction. Like the time they lived in Paris, when Amir told her about the man from Afghanistan who had died from a painful toe (she’d had one at the time). Was there a man? Was he from Afghanistan? Could a human being die of a pain in the toe? What was true, what false? Their relationship at the start had been partially defined by his limited English and French and her ignorance of Persian. She never learned Persian, though he got quite good at English and French. Still, when they talked even now, there lingered for her a linguistic doubt, as if she were talking to a Cockney or a Basque, and she grew to distrust words as a means of communication. And he seldom told her stories anymore.
“I read an article a few months ago by an Indian writer,” Alison told him, “who argued we should let the Bengali tiger expire. Instead of trying to save it, we should help it die—a kind of euthanasia. No longer king of the forest since there isn’t enough left to warrant a kingdom, the tiger actually longs for extinction, he said. Its life is meaningless.”
“Do you believe this?”
“I don’t know. He has a point. Maybe we should just let nature take its course. We’re a part of nature, and if we’ve overpopulated, it’s natural. I, too, would like six miles of flying space.”
“Yes, and we’re aware of the dangers. Our awareness, our higher consciousness is another aspect of nature. So the naturalists are replanting the swamplands and undamming the rivers in the Arkansas refuge. It’s a tag war between the developers—”
“Yes, tug, thank you, between the developers and the naturalists. Who will win? Lord God Bird, flying six miles with its mate, or pretty birdhouses in the suburbs?”
Amir opened his magazine, obviously not expecting she had the answer. Alison felt herself relegated to some dusty corner of his mind, while the ivory-billed woodpecker darted around in the full glory of his imagination.
At least I, we, have not overpopulated the earth and endangered the habitat of the woodpecker, she reflected. She had never gotten pregnant, and they had let nature take its course, not intervening. It was almost too late now. No, it was too late. For the past four months she’d been having night sweats and an occasional hot flash around mid-morning. Sometimes she awoke in such a fever, she felt it would be a blessing to never again touch or be touched by another human body.
It was late April, still damp in the Northeast. Alison was grading end-of-the semester French tests, her spring task for the past fourteen years. Amir looked pale by the firelight in his armchair. He was pale, an Iranian from the North, Aryan blood coursing through his veins—the late Shah renamed Persia Iran to reflect the bloodline, a fact that had always disturbed her. His hair was graying now so that one might not even mistake him for an Italian, as some of his coworkers and neighbors had when he had first arrived in Northern Delaware.
Amir, one vowel sound off from Amour, which is what she went looking for in Paris in 1987. They met quite by accident in the Jardin des Tuileries, where Alison was nursing her feet after a whirlwind tour of the masterpieces in the Louvre. Even though she was to be in France for a year, a year that turned into four while she wrote and refined her French as a post-doc, at twenty-seven-years-old she already felt the pressure of academic time prodding her feet through museums and nagging at her gonads.
Amir was waiting for a friend. He sat on Alison’s bench, but not too close.
“Excuse me. Do you know where rue de Bac is located?” He stubbed his cigarette out on the ground and blew a plume from the corner of his mouth. She admired his jaw.
She didn’t know, but later he confessed she had caught his eye, and, as an unwilling immigrant, asking directions seemed the most logical opening.
“You’re American,” he laughed, as if this fact were a shared joke. “I can tell by your accent. I forget my English because I’m trying to learn French,” he said in pretty good English. At that time, Alison did not grasp the bipolar response America evokes in so many others; Amir taught her that lesson long before it would be forced on so many other Americans. His friend (was there ever a friend?) never showed, so she let herself be led to a café where he bought her hot chocolate. It was Paris. One took risks here.
That evening he invited her to dinner at his apartment, which he shared with his cousin Achilles, a thirteen-year-old boy here in France to avoid being drafted into Iraq’s war with Iran. Amir served her standing up—chicken with pomegranates, rice with apricots, yogurt with cucumbers. He scraped the bottom of the rice pot and laid its crusty contents on her plate. “Tadjik,” he smiled. “A Persian delicacy every child in Iran begs for.” She learned to love it too, crave it even.
Paradise is a Persian word. Paris is a magical city, tinged with danger. The years she lived there, a department store and a bookstore next to her apartment were bombed; hostages were taken, released years later. She had an Iranian refugee as a boyfriend; back in Delaware, her mother had intensified her Christian fundamentalism.
“Would you like anything from the kitchen?” Amir had closed his book and was standing up slowly.
He limped around the corner toward the baked organic veggie chips he snacked on most nights instead of potato chips. He would complain to Alison that he could not understand why his middle was still paunchy. She had met him when he was twenty-nine and lean and had no interest in American snack food.
The back door squeaked open. When he returned, his clothes would smell of cigarettes, though it was not the odor of tobacco smoke that offended her. The pains in his legs he blamed on the cigarette burns he had endured in one of Khomeini’s prisons, but Alison knew what he would not admit—the intermittent caudation was caused by the cigarettes. It was a disease that his doctor said would kill him and not kindly, but Amir refused to give them up. She used to smoke, too—heavily. She used to imagine what it would be like to be denied her beloved Gitanes in prison while some sadist or spineless obedient burned her thighs and calves with the tip of his cigarette. It was perfectly understandable, Amir’s refusal to quit. She didn’t nag.
Amir lowered himself into the armchair and grimaced.
The students’ performance on the tests was average at best. Not one student surprised her, and Alison longed for a surprise. She’d stayed home this past spring break preparing creative lesson plans and having her kitchen redecorated with granite countertops, an Italian tile backsplash, and marble flooring. Last week she’d had her and Amir’s bedroom repainted with a faux finish and spent vacation money on a whirlpool bathtub, all to distract herself. To a degree it had worked, but now the summer loomed large in its emptiness. New window treatments and perhaps even new windows could take up some time, but she knew that would soon bore her. She had tenure at the university and her recent book on the French surrealists, a book few would read, had been well received by those few. No need to write another for a while.
Her lover, who’d critiqued the book, even writing a paragraph here and there, was gone. For five spring breaks in a row except this past one, they had led a gaggle of French and philosophy majors to Paris, where they let them explore museums and sights on their own, meeting them only occasionally for a short lecture. The lavish redecorating was a poor substitute for the extravagant things she and Paul did with their bodies in the Hotel Pas de Calais. In the morning, hot chocolate, two croissants, one butter, one chocolate, a bath, a leisurely walk to lesser sights. The long evenings in fine restaurants, or visiting her Parisian friends who in their liberality did not question or judge her for her obvious affair. Paris was not new to Paul either. Over a decade ago, he and his wife had honeymooned here.
“Why did you ever leave Paris,” Paul asked one beautiful morning in a café on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, his hand on her thigh.
“I flubbed the interview at the American University. Amir and I make more money in the U.S. than we would have ever made here. The life of an expatriate and an exile was too hard, take your pick. We sold out. I convinced him to leave. The last week I was in Paris, I wandered the streets, knowing I was leaving the most beautiful city on earth. For security.” Alison had never said it before, and for a time, she felt the weight of her confession dull Paul’s touch.
“The pleasures of mammon and tenure.” Paul had recently gotten tenured. He wore the long hair of boys in the sixties. “Was it worth it?” In the land of the double entendre, he might have been asking if she were worth it. His students loved him, but she knew he wasn’t the type to risk sleeping with any of them. In his own way, he was as careful as Amir.
Only one week out of the year, she and Paul had agreed. Spring break. The anticipatory sexiness of February, the lack of real guilt and commitment, served as intense aphrodisiacs. She knew with their two egos, their sense of competition and old wounds (like her father, he seldom complimented her), they would never have survived as a couple the other fifty-one weeks of the year.
That last March, they had drifted toward Chinatown, the 13th arrondissement, where she once had lived with Amir. They passed a street corner where Amir had once taken her elbow and steered her away from a sidewalk demonstration put together by a group of Iranian students protesting Khomeini’s executions of his fellow citizens.
“Why don’t you sign?” she’d asked Amir then, referring to the petition an unveiled Iranian woman had pressed on him. At that time in her life, Alison had a great fondness for petitions, having signed dozens at her former university. She had seldom followed up on them.
“Spies,” he said and pulled her aside. “They take pictures of these gatherings and send them to Teheran. When I go back—” He trailed off.
She stopped in the middle of the street. “You will never go back. You’ll finish your doctorate here and then work in the United States, which will pay you quite handsomely for your trouble. You will marry me here and become an American citizen.” This was three and a half years into their relationship—a thousand miscommunications, self-assertions, and self-renunciations. She could not bear to lose him, and she could not lose herself to whatever horrors might await her in Iran. Oh, wouldn’t it be nice, too, necessary even, to own a home, have a backyard with a swimming pool for the children? She would be willing to sacrifice her cultural, artistic, and global life for the American children they would have. A place where no one was tortured, at least its law-abiding citizens, where the government, if problematic and embarrassing, was at least stable.
They never determined whether their lack of children was her fault or his. They traveled to the Caribbean or to Hawaii at Christmas Break, New York or Canada in summer, never to Paris.
Several years ago, one of Alison’s colleagues and her husband came to visit Alison and Amir. The colleague, Gretel, taught history, was outspoken, curious, and a little drunk. At the dinner table, she announced, “I read an article—maybe it was story, I don’t know—about an Iranian man who expected his American wife not only to serve him first, but to peel his apples.” She looked at Amir. “But I see you actually do more in the kitchen than my partner.” She nudged her husband, who smiled helplessly. “Unless this is all a show.”
“No show, except my cooking.” Amir laughed and set down on the table, to everyone’s delight, his specialty: Koofteh Tabrizi, meatballs from Tabriz, which Alison had not helped him prepare.
“Alison would only peel for me an apple if she could shoot it off my head first!” Amir said.
Everyone laughed. But Alison felt sad that she and life had taught Amir never to expect peeled fruit. He had seemed so strong in those early days, so unique, and though in reality she fought for her power, she sometimes fantasized about his domination of her. The fantasies, the brutality of force made her come, but she never had those fantasies anymore. To have them now would be like dreaming a cat could fly. Surreal. Probably she, like Amir, had been damaged, he by cigarettes and she by something less obvious. Everybody, every living thing, it seemed to her, was losing its particularness. English spoken everywhere, blue jeans and cell phones. She foresaw a planet with no living beings but human ones.
Now, Amir, a communist in his youth, had pains in his legs. Paul’s wife, Emily, a psychology professor, did not get tenure, and he said he owed it to her to try out the academic climate in California.
“Maybe USC will have a similar international program,” Paul whispered to Alison at his farewell party before Christmas Break.
Alison considered the situation. Before Paul left she knew even if they could manage the exigencies of time, that minus the furtive glances in committee, the unexpected passings on stairwells, the elbows brushing at the potluck tables of faculty parties—the prick (yes, she called it that) of anticipation—would subside. To meet him in Paris without this necessary foreplay would seem cheap. Still, he was a friend, and when in the waves of a brutal hot flash she had written on the card for all the campus to see, “You will be sorely missed,” she was not lying.
At Alison’s urging, she and Amir began to attend the local Unitarian church. Reluctant at first, once there he said he liked the argumentation, and behind it the sense of camaraderie. She did not feel it. Metaphorically, the church reminded her of an old rag rug or a poorly stitched quilt, the materials and colors not harmonized. To use Amir’s recent ornithological discourse, this church was a common pileated woodpecker. This idea of purity was so corrupt, had spawned countless horrors, she knew, but here it was. She wanted one way—not her mother’s, but a golden path that said, “Take me, I am the best.” Her mother had believed in “only one way,” as she pointed heavenward and frequently said “The Lord Jesus Christ” in unison so often that as a child Alison thought this was one word, one she could never pronounce. Of course her mother had disapproved of her marriage to Amir, who descended from the wrong group. The wrong group of radicals, Alison added to her mother’s consternation.
Her father, a skeptic Alison thanked God for, also disapproved of Amir at first for reasons that were more supportable: marriage was hard enough. Complicate it with matters of culture, and—
But now that Amir had transformed himself into such an American that even the Patriot Act had hardly fazed him, her parents in their dotage seemed more trusting of him than her. This was a bad feeling at any age.
Since Alison had spent all of her vacation money trying to create a form of domestic bliss, running her hand across cool granite instead of the hot planes of Paul’s back, she was surprised when Amir said at the close of the semester that he would like to go to Arkansas to find the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Lord God Bird. His phoenix. That bird, too, was extinct.
“Arkansas?” Alison said. “Not even real Americans want to vacation in Arkansas.”
“That’s where they’ve been spotted, at the White River National Refuge. We can rent a Winniebug and—”
“Yes, and buy a canoe to catch sight of the bird.”
“I spent all the vacation money on the house.” Amir’s was an absurd idea. He liked New York and the Caribbean. Had he ever even camped outdoors? Why didn’t she know this about him?
“I’ll pay, don’t worry.”
It was not like Amir not to worry about money. She wondered whether he was undergoing, rather belatedly, a mid-life crisis, or having an affair. But on his face, she saw the old Amir, scarred but alive, the forbidden, exotic fruit.
Sun-dappled, like everything around them, Alison gazed up into the canopy of cypress and oak. She did not believe the ivory billed-woodpecker would visit her or Amir in their canoe on the White River. The surreal was a state of mind, more attuned to 20th century Paris, not a reality of 2007 Arkansas. It was probably extinct, she told herself, and how would she even recognize it?
She let Amir do most of the paddling—not that it was difficult on the slow, syrupy currents. The air was vaporous. Every now and then, she scooped up a handful of water and let it roll down her chest or back.
“Tree frogs.” Amir nodded toward the chirruping ringlets of Spanish moss.
She lay back on her elbows, studied Amir upside-down, the underside of his chin, a new place for her. Unshaven for two days—so unlike him—two black hairs for every white. His eyes darted from tree to tree, chirp to chirp.
“Yellow warblers,” he said. “And jays.”
“And to think, you didn’t know the word for robin when you first came here.” She smiled up at him.
“You’ve taught me a lot.”
She sat up and faced him, careful not to upset the balance of the canoe, and forced him to look at her instead of the birds.
“Have I? What besides a few words?” She wondered if he felt her to be a manifestation of the disappointments of his life.
He shrugged. “How to be an American?” For a moment he looked as though he might add a word or two.
“Is that why we married?” Years ago, the question had seemed too dangerous to pose. She was his rescuer, she had sometimes thought. It made her feel worthy at first, and then used.
“It’s more complicated than that. Life’s choices are finally a mystery, after all.”
“Do you ever wish you would have gone back to Iran to live?” He had only returned once, for his mother’s funeral eight years ago. She had not gone with him.
“If we weren’t together, you mean?”
She looked up into the trees and said nothing. Had he known about her affair?
“The Persian sky,” he said, “is a most unusual blue. It is the color in the minarets and the Caspian Sea on certain days. Have I ever told you the story of my great uncle and his falcon?”
He told her the story of how Mohammed, a great falconer, received a visit from the shah one day. Showing off his sport before royalty, he grew flustered and forgot to wear his glove. While the bird was perched painfully on his outstretched hand, a member of the shah’s entourage let off a round of ammunition into the Persian sky. Frightened, the falcon dug more deeply into Mohammed’s arm. When it finally hit marrow, Mohammed had shot it. Still, he’d lost his arm.
“And is this a true story?” she asked, and he just smiled and returned to looking for the ivory-bill. More of the same. This is perhaps a trait of the times, she thought, this worship of reality, this search for the actual, the what-really-happened. Maybe all of it, even love, at least that kind they’d once had, was like this search for the chimerical bird, and she was not sure, as she studied the planes and angles of her mind, that she wanted any more of it.
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